My last two posts were related in a way common in cinema: the first was a review of a film based on a book, and that was followed by a review of a film that was a remake – in another language – of that film. So here’s the first of another duo of reviews, along the same lines. This film too was based on a book, and engendered in its turn a remake. And, to further keep up the link with the previous post, this one is suspense too.
Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the legendary Sherlock Holmes, wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902. In a little over a decade, the first film to be based on the book had been made – over 1914-15, Der Hund von Baskerville was made in Germany. Over the years since then, many more versions in many more languages have been made. This one, directed by Sidney Lanfield and starring Basil Rathbone, is arguably the best-known of the English-language versions.
The film begins – very appropriately – with an introduction to the hound. On a gloomy night, across the dark moors of Dartmoor in Devonshire, the howl of the hound echoes. An old man – Sir Charles Baskerville, as we later learn – glances over his shoulder as he pants, running and quivering with fear, away from the hound pursuing him. He runs through a gate and collapses, dead.
A bearded, scruffy man who’s been lurking in the bushes hurries forward and tries to tug Baskerville’s pocket watch, but runs away when someone shouts out to check if all is well.
The scene shifts now to a coroner’s court, where the chief residents of Dartmoor – those who might know something about Baskerville and his mysterious death – are gathered. An inquest is being held, and as the conversation proceeds, we are introduced to the people present. There is Dr Mortimer (Lionel Atwill), who was Baskerville’s physician and friend. Dr Mortimer had examined the body and states that Baskerville died of a heart attack.
He admits that Baskerville had lately been very anxious, and it had been obvious that “something was preying on his mind”. When the coroner asks if Baskerville and confided in him, the doctor is about to reply when his wife (Beryl Mercer) tugs at his coat and gives him a warning look. Dr Mortimer stops, denies it, and reiterates that Baskerville’s death occurred because of a heart attack.
This draws an annoyed reaction from Stapleton (Marton Lowry), who asks why, then, did Baskerville’s footprints look so odd – as if he had been walking on tiptoe back to his house? Dr Mortimer refutes this, saying the footprints suggest Baskerville had been running.
This seems to be building up into a quarrel, but Stapleton is restrained by his step-sister Beryl (Wendy Barrie).
– and yet another resident of Dartmoor jumps into the fray: Mr Frankland (Barlowe Borland). He loves nothing more than litigation – no matter on how flimsy grounds. Frankland insists it’s murder, yells at the others to speak up and tell the truth, and is finally told by the coroner to pipe down, since Frankland was neither there nor had seen Baskerville’s body.
The coroner passes a verdict of death by heart failure, and there the case rests.
We are now finally introduced to the hero of our story, Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone), who is at home in 221B Baker Street with his friend/associate/biographer Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce), when they see this interesting piece of news in the papers:
(why the ‘death… still a mystery’? Hadn’t a verdict of heart failure been passed? So why call it a mystery?)
Holmes smells a rat, and prophesies that young Sir Henry Baskerville may well be murdered when he arrives in England. Holmes and Watson discover that Dr Mortimer – whose existence they do not yet know of – had visited in their absence. Holmes shows off his intellect by gauging the doctor’s past and present by examining the walking stick the man inadvertently left behind.
These conjectures are, shortly afterwards, confirmed by the reappearance of Dr Mortimer himself. He introduces himself, tells of his connection to Sir Charles Baskerville, says that he will be receiving the soon-to-arrive Henry Baskerville – and suddenly changes tack from what he’d said at the inquest. He insists Sir Charles Baskerville had been murdered.
In addition, Dr Mortimer has something interesting to show Holmes: an old document he’s found, dating back to the 17th century, which is all about the ‘curse of the Baskervilles’.
The scene shifts – briefly – back to medieval England, and to the then-lord of the manor, the wild rake, Hugo Baskerville. Hugo one day kidnapped a girl from one of the farms on his lands and brought her home.
He locked her in his room and went downstairs, where he ate and drank and caroused with his equally rowdy friends.
When Hugo Baskerville and his friends went upstairs to ‘admire’ the girl, though, they found that she had escaped. Hugo set off on his horse in hot pursuit, and his friends followed a little way behind. Along the way, they began to hear a weird howling, and on moving forward, discovered the girl, now dead – and beyond her, the corpse of Hugo Baskerville, his body torn to shreds, and with a hellish hound standing over him.
Ever since, the Baskervilles have feared that they will all be killed by this (apparently immortal) hound.
Dr Mortimer now reveals the reason of his fear: it turns out that, on the night Charles Baskerville died – apparently of that heart attack – Mortimer noticed footprints near his body. The footprints of a hound. He is therefore, scared about what will happen to Henry Baskerville when he arrives. Holmes invites Mortimer to bring the young man to him after he’s arrived.
So the next time Dr Mortimer arrives, it is with the pleasant Sir Henry Baskerville (Richard Greene). Holmes greets him and asks whether he’s noticed anything peculiar ever since his arrival. Two things emerge. The first is this odd, anonymous missive, which was thrown through the cab window on their way from the dock:
And Henry Baskerville admits that one of his boots – a new one, which he hadn’t worn even once – had disappeared from outside his hotel room. Holmes tells Dr Mortimer to tell Baskerville the legend of the hound (which the light-hearted young man laughingly refers to as ‘Ah! The family ghost!’). Holmes assures them that he will look into the matter, and they say goodbye.
The two visitors go down the street, chatting. Holmes and Watson follow, unnoticed, but Holmes notices something: a gloved hand sticking a pistol out of the window of a slow-moving cab, and aiming straight for Henry Baskerville.
Holmes is able to yell and warn Baskverville, but the would-be assassin makes off. Holmes manages to get the number of the cab, and later interrogates the cab driver – only to learn from him that the person who had hired it had said he was the famous detective Sherlock Holmes!
The next day, Holmes and Watson visit Baskerville at his hotel, where they discover that his vanished shoe is back. Instead, another boot – an old black one – has now gone missing. He’s, not unreasonably, pretty annoyed, but this incident only makes Holmes more thoughtful.
Baskerville and Dr Mortimer are leaving for Baskerville Hall in Dartmoor the next day, and request Holmes to come along. But no; he says he has important business he must complete in London. Watson, though, will accompany them and keep sending Holmes regular reports.
…So the three men: Baskerville, Mortimer and Watson, travel down to Dartmoor and Baskerville Hall, where Baskerville is introduced to the butler Barryman (John Carradine) and his wife (Eily Malyon), both gaunt and unsmiling.
That night, someone slowly and soundlessly tries Watson’s door, but does not enter. When Watson investigates, he runs into Baskerville, who has also heard something. When they go further, they find Barryman, holding a candle to the window. He makes an excuse about making sure the windows are fastened for the night, but the other two men aren’t fooled. After Baskerville sends Barryman off to his bed, they look out, only to see another light shining far out on the moor.
They follow it and encounter the same man who’d once tried to rob the dead Charles Baskerville. Watson fires at him, but misses and he escapes, running off into the wilds. Soon after they hear that awful howling.
There is something definitely going on in Dartmoor – and it just might be spectral.
More happens in the days to come. Sir Henry Baskerville meets Beryl Stapleton and the two fall in love swiftly (though she, at the first meeting itself, tries to encourage him to leave Baskerville Hall and Dartmoor).
It also emerges that Dr Mortimer is an occultist and his wife a medium. One day, while he’s hosting dinner for the local gentry, the doctor persuades Mrs Mortimer to be part of a séance and try to contact the wraith of Sir Charles Baskerville to ask him how he died. Nothing comes of it, though, because just then the hound starts howling out on the moor and Beryl Stapleton is distressed enough to spoil all of Mrs Mortimer’s concentration.
…and one day they meet a dirty peddler who tries to sell them all manner of oddities he carries in a battered suitcase.
What is going on, after all? Is there really a hound that haunts the Baskerville family line, or is someone up to no good? And why, anyway?
What I liked about this film:
Basil Rathbone’s look. I’d thought nobody could look as convincing a Sherlock Holmes (as I’d envisaged) as Jeremy Brett in the brilliant TV series, but Rathbone, with his sharp features and those intelligent eyes, is very Holmesian too. His acting is excellent – as always – but more on that later.
The general air of suspense. The combination – a supernatural horror that haunts succeeding generations of a family, and an obviously human agency (remember the gloved hand with the pistol aimed at Henry Baskerville in London?) – is a good one. Of course most of the credit for that must go to Conan Doyle’s superb story, but replicating that onscreen, and managing to create an eeriness that is close to what is built up in the book, would’ve been a difficult task.
What I didn’t like:
Unfortunately, the essence of Sherlock Holmes as a character – that somewhat ruthless sharpness, the occasional dry wit, the cocaine addiction – is lost in the film. Rathbone’s Holmes is a much more normal human being, jovial in a back-slapping, happy way which just didn’t sit right with me. The worst thing was, Rathbone was actually a very fine actor (the quiet, dangerous cunning he exhibits in The Mark of Zorro, would, for example, have made for a more appropriate Holmes too). I can only guess that his brief here was all wrong – and I’d blame the director for that.
There are some holes in the plot, and inconsistencies. For example, it is never quite explained why Dr Mortimer was so insistent that Charles Baskerville’s death was a natural one even when he thought all along that it was murder – and then went and consulted Holmes about it. Or why Beryl Stapleton kept telling Henry Baskerville, even after they were deeply in love, that he should leave Dartmoor and go away – to London, to Canada, wherever.
Then there’s the message – which Henry Baskerville is sent in London: that never gets solved. Who sent it? Why? (There is an indication, but in light of what finally emerges as culprit and motive, it makes little sense).
Or why, when Charles Baskerville’s death had been put down as a murder, it was still being referred to as a mystery. Niggling little things, but they do spoil the experience a bit.
Down to the nitty-gritty (and the nit-picking!) I have to admit I’m very fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories – and The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first I remember ever having read. It’s a great read. And the 1939 film is a great film. Unfortunately, only on its own.
While the film is not anywhere as badly mangled an adaptation of a book as some others I’ve seen, it has unnecessary deviations and digressions from the plot which take away from the story. Take, for example, Beryl Stapleton’s constant attempts to get Henry Baskerville to leave Dartmoor. In the book, there is a very good reason for it. A little convoluted, but still.
Minor spoiler ahead:
There is one scene towards the end where Holmes (who already knows who the culprit is), having killed the hound, traces its footprints back to the small underground chamber where it had been kept. When Holmes pries up the trapdoor and shines his torch down, he sees bones – the remains of the dog’s meals, obviously – and a crumpled cloth. There is nothing there that could be a clue (or nothing, at least, that Holmes later reveals as a clue) – yet Holmes jumps down into the chamber, giving the lurking killer a fine opportunity to slam the trapdoor down and lock Holmes in. Fine detective.
I can appreciate the fact that a film cannot waste time on explaining every detail that a story can go into, but there were threads here left hanging unaccountably… instead, if Ernest Pascal (who wrote the screenplay) did want to keep the script as taut as possible, he shouldn’t have wasted time on Dr Mortimer’s occultism and that stupid séance – neither has any connection to the book, and actually has very little relevance in the film itself.
The book, I think (and I admit I may be biased) is certainly better than the film. The film by itself is good, suspenseful and generally well-acted, but don’t approach it with huge expectations.